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Sexual Harassment Drives Women out of Physics

A survey of undergraduate women in physics indicates that nearly three-quarters experienced harassment that left them feeling alienated and alone

April 22, 2019

A comprehensive survey of undergraduate women in physics has revealed that almost three-quarters of the respondents experienced some form of sexual harassment over the past two years that resulted in feelings of isolation and alienation. The results, published in the APS journal Physical Review Physics Education Research (PRPER), are based on responses from 471 women who attended the 2017 APS Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP). The paper is accompanied by a Viewpoint commentary in Physics (physics.aps.org).

“I wanted to quantify the scope of sexual harassment in physics to enable productive discussions that extend beyond personal anecdotes,” explains Lauren Aycock (an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy), first author of the paper in PRPER. “This study increases the visibility of the problem without relying on women who have experienced sexual harassment to tell their stories.“

The study also found that gender harassment, one type of sexual harassment, is correlated with a diminished sense of belonging and the imposter phenomenon (a persistent, unjustified feeling of being someone who is undeserving of their accomplishments). These patterns, according to earlier research, negatively influence students’ persistence in STEM fields.

Sexual Harassment Drives Women out of Physics
Image: Joan Tycko

In addition to Lauren Aycock, the study's authors are Zahra Hazari (Florida International University), Eric Brewe (Drexel University), Kathryn Clancy (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Theodore Hodapp (Director of Project Development and Senior Adviser to Education and Diversity, APS), and Renee Michelle Goertzen (Senior Program Manager, Education and Diversity, APS).

"This finding won’t surprise most women in STEMM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine], but it may shock their male colleagues, who are often unaware of sexual harassment’s pervasiveness and damage," wrote Viewpoint author Julie Libarkin (Michigan State University).  "When sexual harassment goes unchecked, physics loses great people, great minds, and great potential."

References

Aycock, L.M., Hazari, Z., Brewe, E., Clancy, K.B.H., Hodapp, T., Goertzen, R.M., "Sexual Harassment Reported by Undergraduate Female Physicists," Phys. Rev. Phys. Ed. Res. 15, 010121 (2019).

Libarkin, J., "Yes, Sexual Harassment Still Drives Women Out of Physics," Physics 12, 43 (2019).

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